What causes stretch marks?
Stretch marks are caused when the skin rapidly stretches as a result of sudden growth or weight gain.
The stretching causes the middle layer of skin (dermis) to tear, allowing the deeper skin layers to show through, forming stretch marks.
The dermis contains strong, inter-connected fibers that allow your skin to stretch as your body grows. However, rapid growth can cause the skin to over-stretch and break the fibers.
The tears in the dermis allow the blood vessels below to show through, which is why stretch marks are often red or purple when they first appear.
When the blood vessels eventually contract (get smaller), the pale-colored fat underneath your skin will be visible, and your stretch marks will change to a silvery-white color.
Treating stretch marks
Most stretch marks aren’t particularly noticeable and will fade over time.
If you have unsightly stretch marks, or if they affect a large area of your body, there are a few treatment options available. However, there isn’t much evidence to show that these treatments work.
Cosmetic camouflage (make-up) is available over-the-counter at pharmacies. It can be used for small areas of skin affected by stretch marks. Some types are waterproof and can last two to three days.
Creams, gels and lotions
The manufacturers of creams, gels and lotions often claim that they can remove stretch marks. However, it’s unlikely they can prevent stretch marks occurring, or make them fade any more than they will over time.
These products are essentially skin moisturizers and are available from pharmacies, supermarkets, and health and beauty shops. They should usually be applied when your stretch marks are still red or purple.
Laser therapy can’t completely remove stretch marks, but it may help fade them and make them less noticeable.
Several different types of laser therapy are used to treat stretch marks.
Pulsed dye laser treatment is one type of laser treatment available. It’s painless and can be used at an early stage, while your stretch marks are still red or purple.
The energy from the laser is absorbed by the blood vessels underneath your stretch marks. The blood vessels collapse and the red or purple color either disappears completely or turns white.
Cosmetic surgery for stretch marks is expensive and rarely recommended.
If you have stretch marks on your abdomen and a large amount of loose skin, it may be possible to have an abdominoplasty (tummy tuck).
This is a type of cosmetic surgery that removes excess fat and skin from your abdomen, and also gets rid of stretch marks below your belly button.
As this surgery is carried out for cosmetic reasons (to improve appearance). It also carries a number of associated risks and can cause considerable scarring.
Preventing stretch marks
Stretch marks can’t always be prevented – for example, they often occur during pregnancy. However, there are some things you can do to help lower your chances of getting stretch marks.
Weight and diet
Stretch marks are often caused by gaining weight rapidly over a short period of time. Avoiding rapid weight gain and weight loss (“yo-yo dieting”) can help prevent stretch marks.
If you need to lose weight, you should do it slowly by eating a healthy, balanced diet and exercising regularly. You shouldn’t lose more than 0.5kg (1lb) a week.
It’s important to eat a healthy, balanced diet that’s rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin E, vitamin C, and the minerals zinc and silicon. These vitamins and minerals will help keep your skin healthy.
A balanced diet will provide all the vitamins and minerals your body needs. Dietary supplements aren’t needed to prevent stretch marks.
Body mass index (BMI) is a measure most people can use to check whether their weight is healthy in relation to their height and build. For most adults, a BMI of 18.5 to 25 is considered healthy.
You can use the BMI healthy weight calculator to find out whether you’re overweight.
Stretch marks during pregnancy are usually caused by hormonal changes that affect your skin. Gaining pregnancy weight steadily may help minimize the effect of stretch marks.
During pregnancy, it’s normal to put on weight over a relatively short period of time. However, it’s a myth that you need to “eat for two”, even if you’re expecting twins or triplets.
If you’re pregnant you don’t need to go on a special diet, but you should eat a variety of foods every day to get the right balance of nutrients for you and your baby. Your diet should be rich in wholewheat carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta, as well as fruit and vegetables.